Nearly 80 miles outside of Salt Lake City, in Uinta County Wyoming, the Management and Training Corporation (MTC) awaits approval from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to construct a new immigration detention center. MTC is the third largest for-profit prison corporation in the US. Their newest business venture in an immigration detention centers follows a call from ICE for five new immigration centers to be constructed across the country in Salt Lake City, Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul, and South Texas to accommodate President Trump’s executive order and new immigration policy. Though the Obama administration attempted to eliminate privately operated prisons, including immigration detention centers, in 2017,attorney General Jeff Sessions allowed the private prison industry to continue undisturbed.
Detention centers host a variety of individuals being held on civil charges, including undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, individuals being investigated by ICE, and even permanent residents detained on suspicion. Over the last decade, detention centers have housed 3 million immigrants in over 180 locations in the US. Under the Obama administration, the detention center population reached an all-time high. To account for the high volume, ICE contracted with both private prison corporations and local county jails to assist in detention. However, according to Justice Department data privatized detention centers regularly violate the safety and security of detained individuals, and as detention centers have privatized, human rights violations have worsened.
Even though detention centers are a holding place for civil matters, not prisons, the conditions of private immigration detention centers across the US increasingly punish and harm immigrants in residence. MTC, the company hoping to construct a new detention center in Wyoming, has repeatedly been cited by ICE as violating federal standards and allowing inhumane conditions to persist in centers. The MTC operated Otero Detention Center in New Mexico in particular was revealed to have subjected detained individuals to unsanitary conditions and used lockdowns and solitary confinement in violation of federal standards. Additionally, individuals at Otero have cited being denied medical care and access to basic medical supplies as well as being prescribed Tylenol for serious ailments. Furthermore, Otero has managed to become exempted from ICE requirements to provide detainees with outdoor activities and access to natural light. Otero is not an isolated case, either. An ICE investigation revealed that four out of five operating private detention centers visited were conducting systematic strip searches of detained individuals, serving rotten food, misusing segregation techniques, denying outside communication, and delaying medical care. These conditions are hardly legal for individuals in prison in the US. Immigrants in detention centers have not committed a crime, nor should they be subjected to inhumane environments as they await trial.
However, the conditions of privatized immigration centers are increasingly kept out of the public eye. In 2017, CoreCivic and GEO, two of the largest for-profit prison corporations even attempted to block Freedom of Information Act requests related to immigrant detention. With limited oversight from ICE and little public attention, it is likely similar human rights abuses like those at Otero will persist, particularly as more private detention centers are constructed. Citizens of the US held for arbitrary reasons, asylum seekers hoping for protection in the US, immigrants, and other individuals are in detention centers on civil charges. They did not commit a crime, nor does any crime warrant of the complete dismissal of basic human rights.
Private detention centers have worse safety records than federal centers and are even more expensive to operate according to a review by the Office of the Inspector General. The only benefactors of harmful detention policy are the corporations operating them at the expense of innocent individuals. For all of the taxpayer dollars spent, the two largest private prison companies in the US, CoreCivic and GEO, receive the majority of the benefits. The $2 billion a year that ICE spends on private immigration detention centers accounts for approximately 20% of GEO and CoreCivic’s revenues. The promise of more detention centers in the US even caused a rise in the stock value of CoreCivic by 30%, and GEO for 20% in 2017. Taxpayers pay $5 million dollars per day for 34,000 immigrants to be held in unsanitary, unsafe detention centers across the nation for the benefit of companies like GEO, CoreCivic, and MTC. The companies not only benefit from the expansion of detention facilities, as the Trump administration continues to develop harsh immigration and prison policy, for-profit prison corporations will also gain revenue from individuals being held by US Marshal Services and incarcerated individuals. Essentially, Corporations make money off individuals being detained, and the more individuals charged with crimes or detained for extended periods the more they benefit, no matter the conditions of their detention centers.
To protect rights, DHS could allow immigrants to live with families while waiting for their legal cases to be processed. California and Texas have more detention centers than any other state with nearly 5,000 people are held in 50 centers around the state. However, a Human Rights Watch report found that 42% of people detained in California had children who were US citizens. DHS should find other ways to monitor migrants as they await court dates that are less expensive and more humane than the immigration prison complex. However, the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies and the interests of private prison corporations are unlikely to allow real change or result in increased standards for detention centers around the country.